Bernd und Hilla Becher

Bernd Becher was born in 1931, in Siegen; Hilla Becher, née Wobeser, was born in 1934, in Potsdam. From 1953 to 1956, Bernd Becher studied painting at the Stuttgart State Academy of Art and Design. In 1959, he transferred to the Art Academy Düsseldorf where he became a student of Karl Rössing. He finished his studies in 1961. Hilla Becher was trained as a photographer in Potsdam and started to work at an advertisement agency in Düsseldorf in 1957. In 1958, she enrolled at the Art Academy where she studied photography. Like Bernd Becher, she finished her studies in 1961. The two artists met in Düsseldorf, started their collaborative work in 1959, and married in 1961. From 1976 to 1996, Bernd Becher was Professor of Photography at the Art Academy Düsseldorf. The class of Bernd and Hilla Becher became a center of artistic photography and shaped the work of several generations of artists (among them Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, Thomas Ruff, Jörg Sasse).

It is Bernd Becher who first turned his gaze on industrial buildings: »I had grown up in the Siegerland [region of the river Sieg]. Watching the industrial structures that had shaped the mentality of the area and had been the basis of its economy slowly disappear, was an experience that set the direction of my work. The ore mines and the blast furnaces where the heart of the region. At first; I started to draw them and turn the drawings into lithographies and etchings. Sometimes I also copied the objects. Then came the moment where I needed to take up photography. There was an industrial facility where I had sat for weeks, drawing. But time worked against me when they started to tear it down. In order to back up the painted or drawn interpretation, I started to take photos of the building before it was entirely torn down, so I could use them as a basis for later drawings. This experience of disappearance triggered off everything that followed« (B. Becher, in: Kunstforum International, 171/2004).

In the early 1960s, the artist couple turned towards a shared photographic project that would shape their entire œuvre. At a time when, especially in Europe, photography was not yet considered to be on an equal level with other artistic mediums, they started their photographic project of water towers, furnaces, grain silos, winding towers, gasometers, cooling towers, and lime works. Their first project was Grube Eisenhardter Tiefbau, a mine in southern Westphalia. The photos were systematized and structured in various pictorial constellations, tableaux, and sequences. Taken with a large-format camera under consistent lighting conditions and usually shot from a slightly elevated position, either frontally or centered, the comprehensive collection of black-and-white photographs documents industrial architecture. The photographs show buildings and regular architectonic patterns, shapes and materiality of an architectural type that has been successively erased in the course of the time, especially in North Rhine-Westphalia.

Next to the goal of documentation, the concept of the Bechers stresses a reduced perspective, a photographic gaze grounded in the wish to grasp the object in an authentic, static way, as free as possible from exterior influences or strong shadows. The pictures – they are arranged in large-format photo sequences – form »typologies« of architecture (Tipologie, Typologien, Typlogies: Ausst.-Kat. 1990). Deliberately drawing on scientific forms of perception and representation, the comparative picture collections of the Bechers direct the gaze towards basic shapes that are significant of the specific type of structure and towards its variants. Yet they also draw attention to the proper life of the objects. One may thus also consider these collections to be taxonomies. »They [the objects] create the impression of an artificial nature, although they have more to do with architecture in terms of their dimensions and their relation to the building grounds. The impression of a depicted nature emerges because the architecture of heavy industry consists of organs and conduits. It looks like a body assembled from various parts that digests or transforms something« (H. Becher, in: Kunstforum International, 171/2004). In the perception of the object as bodylike, the picture constellations evoke the method employed in the well-known photographs of Karl Blossfeldt. In a way, they reverse Blossfeldt’s proceeding. During the early times of photography, Blossfeldt presented photographs of plants that approached, as to their structural design and their architechtural as well as ornamental qualities, the photography of architecture.

In the way several pictures form groups, that is, in their constellations, the photographs of the artists again go beyond concepts of documentation. In Abwicklungen(Settlements), for example, several photographs taken of the same object are shown from different angles (Abwicklung Wuppertaler Schwebebahn Haltestelle(Settlement Wuppertal Suspension Railway Stop), 1972). The overall view only emerges in the interrelation of the single perspectives – a method that is somewhat reminiscent of analytic cubism. Through such comprehensive perspectives on the object captured, the artist couple developed different contexts of perception. This is based on the close inspection (»Begehung«) of the site and on the meticulous gaze on the qualities of the object, on shapes as well as surface structures. »I am interested in making a blast furnace appear like iron in the photograph, and I use light and shadow. It is important that an oil refinery which is much brighter and silvery, is given its specific radiance. The work in the darkroom therefore plays an important role« (H. Becher, ibid.)

With their photographs, Bernd and Hilla Becher developed an aesthetics of the object and, for the first time directed the public gaze towards a culture of the monument. They drew attention to an industrially shaped architectural type that had, until the time, remained unacknowledged. In the course of the crisis of coal and steel that started in the late 1960s, these monuments more and more disappeared, sometimes despite the protest of the artist couple. In an indirect way, they also make the viewer aware of the facts »behind« the objects, facts one may guess at through the shapes and functions of the buildings: the world of work and the ways of life in the regions documented. Next to timber frame houses in the region of the Sieg or industrial facilities in the Ruhr region, their »archaeological« photographs also show industrial buildings in the Netherlands, Belgium, Great Britain, France, as well as water towers and gasometers in the U.S.

Bernd and Hilla Becher’s works have been shown in many European and American museums and are part of many collections. From the very beginning of their collaboration, the artist couple positioned itself close to Concept Art, for example in the exhibition »Prospect 69« at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf (1969), but also with their own book publications (Anonyme Skulpturen. Eine Typologie technischer Bauten, Düsseldorf 1970). Among the exhibitions that have shown their photographs are »Von hier aus« (»Starting from Here«), Düsseldorf (1984) and, in the U.S., an exhibition at the Sonnabend Gallery, New York (1973). Bernd and Hilla Becher participated in the Documenta in 1971, 1977, 1982, and in 2002 and were part of the Venice Biennale in 1990. In 2004/05, their work was honored with a retrospectivetraveling??? show at the Kunstsammlung NRW, Düsseldorf, at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, and in further locations.

Bernd Becher died in June 2007, in Rostock. Hilla Becher lives and works in Düsseldorf.

Selected Literature:

Bernd & Hilla Becher, Typologien industrieller Bauten: Ausst.-Kat. Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, hg. v. A. Zweite, München 2004

Bernd und Hilla Becher, Grundformen industrieller Bauten, München 2004

Steinhauser, M.; Hemken, K.-U.: Bernd und Hilla Becher, Industriephotographie, Düsseldorf 1994

Bernd und Hilla Becher, Fördertürme, Chevalements, Mineheads, München 1985

Bernd und Hilla Becher, Arbeiten 1957 — 1981: Ausst.-Kat. Stedelijk van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven 1981

Foto: Tobias Roch, Hagen Bildrechte: gemeinfrei, Foto: Peter Hinschläger Bildrechte: VG Bild Kunst, Bonn 2014 Bildrechte: Calder Foundation New York / Foto Stiftung Lehmbruck Museum

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